This was the D'var Torah I gave on Saturday, November 28, the Shabbat of Thanksgiving weekend 2020.
We Jews have three major names in the Tanakh, in the Bible. When other people are around, we’re sometimes called Ivri or Hebrew -- the people from over-there, from the other side of the tracks, the parevenu. When we’re among ourselves, we’re known mostly as Yisrael -- the ones who struggle with God and with other people, according to the story where that name originates. And we’re also known as Yehudi or Jew -- the people of thanksgiving. Yehudi has the same root as todah, thank you.
I bet when you hear or use the words Jew or Jewish, gratitude is not top of mind. I never really thought about it myself until a few years ago.
You could say that these three biblical names of ours are three dimensions of our deep consciousness -- the other, the struggler, the one who is thankful.
Really most of the traditional literature through our history uses the term Yisrael, the wrestler or struggler. First thing in the morning we say Baruch..She-asani Yisrael -- that’s how we bless God for making me a member of this group. Just like the real Hebrew word for Judaism is Torah, the Hebrew word for Jew for most of our history has been Yisrael.
But we have this other name, and it’s the one that’s become the most common -- Jew or Yehudi. The history behind the name has to do with the disappearance of the ten tribes, leaving basically some Levites and almost everyone else from the tribe of Judah and the territory of Judah. Yehudah, Yehudim. Judah-ites, Judeans, which in transliteration to Greek and Latin eventually becomes Jews.
Anyway, in our parasha, the name Yehudah comes from Leah Imeinu. When her fourth son was born, she said hapa’am odeh et Adonai -- this time, this moment, I am thanking Adonai -- and so she called his name Yehudah, from odeh, I am thanking.
This time, says Leah, this moment I am thanking Adonai. Leah’s life as a whole was not full of the kinds of things that make easily for gratitude. She was the unwanted wife of Yaakov. Her situation did not change the way she hoped it might when she had children for Yaakov. She called her first son Reuven, saying God has seen my suffering. She called the second Shimon, God has heard that I am not loved. She called the third Levi, saying maybe now my husband will become close to me.
She called the fourth one Yehudah, saying: right now I am giving thanks for Adonai. Hapa’am odeh et Adonai.
Leah’s gratitude is not a contentment of having things good all in all and taking time to notice it. Leah’s thanksgiving is not a blessing she says at a turning point in her life from bad to good. Things don’t turn around for her particularly after Yehudah is born. For the time being, she is ignored, if things aren’t actually worse. At a moment when it’s not easy or about to be easier, Leah says todah, and she gives all of us our name.
This year it’s not as easy to feel gratitude on a Thanksgiving weekend, and there are many in our community here today for whom the holiday weekend makes harder a year of loss. Some of that loss seems like it should never have happened to begin with -- loss of loved ones, loss of income, loss of connections. So maybe this year we might particularly tune into how it is that Leah could say this moment I am thankful, hapa’am odeah.
Actually every year on this weekend I find myself grappling a bit with how to teach about gratitude, because of a worry that preaching gratitude might sound like saying the world as we have it is enough. So I went looking for a teaching that would speak to this concern, and found a teaching from Rabbi Alex Weissman, from Attleboro, Massachusetts and T’ruah, the rabbinic human rights organization.
Rabbi Weissman says we need a perspective of gratitude especially at the moments we are looking at imperfection. He says that when we talk about tikkun olam, we run a risk of overfocusing on brokenness. We might easily fall into a spiral where we need negativity to generate the motivation to act, and where our own personal blessings make us feel guilty rather than thankful.
Though he doesn’t use this language, Rabbi Weissman says it’s not sustainable only to think of ourselves as Yisrael, as the ones who struggle -- we need to be Jews, Yehudim, people of gratitude.
Rabbi Weissman brings out this insight through a debate in the Talmud about the word Halleluyah. In the book of Psalms, the first time we see the word Halleluyah is at the end of Psalm 104. “Sinners will be ended from the earth and evildoers nevermore exist -- o my soul, bless Adonai, Halleluyah.” Yitamu chata’im min ha’aretz ur’sha’im od einam, barchi nafshi et Adonai, Halleluyah.
The Talmud concludes from this that King David, composer of the psalms, could not bring himself to say Halleluyah until he could see the downfall of the wicked. But the Talmud brings another view in the name of Beruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir and a great scholar in her own name. Rabbi Meir was being harassed by local hooligans, and he prayed for their death. Beruriah said to him: I bet you think you are relying on this verse -- “let sinners be ended from the earth” -- but you read it wrong. Yitamu chatai’m means not that sinners will disappear but that sin will disappear. You should pray for them to do teshuvah, then say Halleluyah!
Rabbi Weissman says that Beruriah’s Halleluyah is what gratitude really is. It’s not just thankfulness for what we have today, and it’s not even the ability to imagine the disappearance of today’s negative. It’s a vision, he says, handed down from our ancestors. Their experiences of liberation and healing, and their prophetic visions, are more than the absence of what’s broken and missing. They are a beautiful picture of the world after pain and loss. They are a song of Halleluyah.
When we can’t say thank you from our own personal experience, Beruriah says: sing Halleluyah on behalf of our ancestors, or on behalf of the future, or on behalf of someone you care about who is safe, who is well. And when you can say thank you out of our own deep contentment, remember to make yourself a person who can be a reason someone else has to give thanks. That’s Halleluyah -- not cold and broken, but truly joyful.
In the winter of 2017 our local interfaith council had a meeting to talk about immigration issues as the Trump Administration was initiating its all-out assault on people here without documentation. One of our presenters was Maggie Fogarty, who was and is one of our state’s leading faith leaders and activists on these issues. I asked her in front of the group how spiritually she was facing all of this, and she surprised me with a version of Beruriah’s Halleluyah.
Maggie answered me without hesitation, and in the peaceful way that I’ve come to see as her hallmark in the middle of struggle. She said there is joy in the fellowship of people showing up to stand by others, and in the music of voices singing together on days of success and even on days of defeat. She said she was choosing to be curious about the people on the other side who were absolutely in favor of the harassment and deportations Maggie was and is organizing against, rather than feeling overpowered by them. She said she was certain that all of this would be worthwhile, for all of the four years to come. It was quite a Halleluyah, and it sustains me and I think a lot of others. Whenever I am grateful for Maggie, I think about what it would take for me to be someone who others would have good reason to be grateful for too.
The very first song of Thanksgiving, according to the midrash, was composed by Adam and Eve. Mizmor Shir l’Yom HaShabbat: Tov l’hodot l’Adonai -- the song of Shabbat: It is good to thank Adonai. The midrash says they composed this song on the first and only Shabbat in the Garden of Eden, when they knew they’d be packing their bags after Havdalah.
Even with all that, they gave thanks for a day in the garden, for knowing that a garden of Eden is possible; for a day of Shabbat; for each other and the hard lesson from the divine; for knowing there was light the morning after. At that moment, they sang thank you, and hoped we would sing their song and remember that their paradise is real any day we don’t have it yet.
Eve passed her song to Leah, who named Yehudah and named us, and Leah’s thankfulness in a hard time became Beruriah’s Halleluyah. These are all variations on a theme, of finding thanksgiving even as we await a better time and strive for a better world. We need such thanksgiving, just as we need Shabbat as a weekly thanksgiving that powers us into a new week. We are not only Yisrael, the strivers, but Yehudim, Jews, the ever-thankful people.